DIY mountaineering

I’m shivering in a rented tent on a makeshift sleeping mat, curled foetus-like inside my sleeping sack in a hired sleeping bag. I’m wearing my warmest socks, the leggings I walked up in, trousers, a singlet, a merino skivvy, and a thermal jacket. I may even put socks on my hands.

It’s summer in Kyrgyzstan, but I’m high in the mountains behind the capital, Bishkek, and it’s bloody freezing. I’m camping about 3370 metres above sea level in the glorious Ak Sai canyon, right next to several enormous glaciers and the currently closed Ratsek hut.

I’ve been hankering to go tramping ever since I visited Arslanbob, but having sent my sleeping bag to London from Urumqi and not having a tent, a stove, a sleeping mat or any camping essentials, it’s not been feasible.

That is, until I was put onto the Kyrgyzstan Trekking Union. These guys and girls know their stuff and have some good quality gear for hire, so I paid them a visit and shot off to the Ala Archa National Park.

Manat, manager of the Union, suggested the walk up to Ratsek for its spectacular scenery instead of the other overnight tramp up the Ala Archa canyon to an old ski chalet, and he wasn’t wrong.

The flipside is that it’s the most arduous climb I’ve done in years. The Devil’s Staircase in Tongariro National Park takes about three quarters of an hour, if my memory serves me; the last part of the climb up to Ratsek was two and a half hours of the same but with the extra treacherousness of steep, slippery gravel. The whole walk took just over four hours.

[For the record, it was even more hairy going back down and I had a badly bruised backside the next day to show for it.]

At the hut some rock climbers were practising for an ascent of one of the nearby glaciers, and a group of Czech geography students were over on their summer holidays for some mountaineering.

The rock climbers kindly helped me put up the tent and the Czechs plied me with plum schnapps and exclaimed over my small bag and alone-ness (the Kyrgyz teenagers who gave me a lift up the road to the start of the track told me I was crazy for going alone – but then again the Kyrgyz never walk, they load up a horse instead).

So here I am, full of pasta and some chocolate pudding that the Czechs looked at in horror until I explained what it was (“It looks like oil!”), listening to the glaciers crack and spit ice into the valley, and enjoying some rare solitude.


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